NOBLE M12 GTO-3R
Graham Bell samples the latest evolution of the M12
The M12 will probably go down in automotive history as the pivotal model in Lee Noble’s career. That’s because despite some 20 years devising sports cars including the Ultima and Ascari Ecosse, it wasn’t until the M12 that the mainstream motoring press and buying public really sat up and took notice and Lee finally got the recognition and success his talents had long deserved.
Demand for the M12 over the past three years has seen Noble go from a company housed in one small industrial unit struggling to sell a car that nobody wanted (the M10, from which the M12 is derived) to one housed in several large industrial units, with international sales and a growing waiting list currently approaching the six month mark.
Most of this is for the new M12 GTO-3R, which can be distinguished from both the original M12 GTO and the new GTO-3 by the revised nose with faired in lights, the equi-spaced 10 spoke wheels and leather rather than Alcantara trim. Overall though it’s essentially the same car, with the steel spaceframe chassis and custom made all round wishbone suspension being identical to the original M12’s and the only really significant changes being to the engine and transmission.
The engine is now based around the 3-litre version of Ford’s Duratec V6, and as with earlier M12 powerplants is built by John Noble (no relation) in Chesterfield. Exactly what changes are made to the internals are a secret, but there’s no hiding the fact it has a couple of turbochargers tacked on externally, though these are smaller than used with the GTO’s 2.5-litre to help minimise lag.
Other external mods compared to the GTO include the repositioning of the air filters, which were mounted to the rear bulkhead but have now been moved aft to share the intercooler’s air box and cold air feed, while at the opposite end of the gas tract there’s a new exhaust system with visible twin tail pipes.
Maximum power is now up from 310bhp to 352bhp (at 6,200rpm) while torque is up from 320lb ft to 350lb ft, with that figure being pretty constant between 3,500 and 5,000rpm and about 85% of it being available from just 2,000rpm, making for a very tractable engine.
Handling all this grunt is the new 6-speed Ford/Getrag gearbox and a Quaife automatic torque-biasing LSD (rather than an open Ford diff as used with the GTO/GTO-3’s 5-speed). As 1st and 2nd are slightly higher with the 6-speed, the 3R’s 3.7 second 0-60 time is barely quicker than the GTO’s, but with the 6-speed also having a lower 3rd, 4th and 5th the resulting close ratios give a marked improvement up through the gears.
The result of these powertrain changes is that while the 3R’s driving environment will (aside from minor trim changes) feel immediately familiar to GTO owners, the driving experience won’t.
In the original M12, progress along country roads is accompanied by the almost constant chirrup – whoosh, chirrup – whoosh produced by the turbos and induction system following every change of throttle setting, which while entertaining in small doses could prove tiring on long trips. In the 3R the chirrup – whoosh is still there, but it’s far more subdued and seems occasional rather than constant.
This is partly due to the repositioned air filters and turbos and partly due to extra sound insulation, which combined with the 6-speed’s longer legged top gear (26.5mph per 1,000rpm as opposed to 23.2) also helps to reduce noise at motorway cruising speeds.
Another noticeable difference is the gear change, which with the 5-speed box is rather notchy, while the 6-speeder’s is apparently better. I say apparently because the linkage in the test car had developed a sloppiness that Noble hadn’t had time to deal with. I don’t know if it was related, but it also had a reluctance to engage first from neutral, though if you slotted it into second and then engaged first it went in fine. However, this was a minor irritation that only cropped up at junctions and in town, while the sloppy linkage wasn’t a real problem either, with only one wrongly engaged gear all day, though it would be interesting to see what it should be like.
It would also be interesting to see what the steering would be like without power assistance as I don’t think mid-engined cars need it, but as most people these days want it, the M12 has it whether you like it or not. Happily it isn’t one of those vague, lifeless systems but one that provides a reasonable amount of feel along with a reasonably quick 2.6 turns lock to lock. Although lacking the intimacy of the best non-assisted systems it does make for an easy, comfortable drive, with only a couple of really bad potholes producing any kick-back through the steering, which means that only a light grip on the wheel is required even along bumpy roads at high speed.
In fact the M12 seems to take high speed bumpy roads in its stride, remaining totally composed and feeling solidly planted to the tarmac and not in the least skittish like some cars do. This is probably partly down to the supple suspension and partly due to that rear wing, which far from being just a Max Power posing accessory does apparently make a noticeable difference to the car’s high speed stability.
The supple suspension pays dividends at low speed around town too, with manholes and patch repairs barely making themselves felt in the cabin, which combined with solid construction and good build quality also meant there were no creaks or rattles. It makes you wonder why some manufacturers continue to put rock hard suspension on their performance cars when the M12 proves that a skilful combination of supple suspension and stiff chassis can provide both a comfortable ride and outstanding handling.
Ah yes, the handling. The ability to tackle the bendy bits more quickly than just about anything else on the road has always been one of the M12’s big selling points. Well, not only does the 3R have exactly the same suspension that made the original M12 so good, it also has that LSD for improved traction, so it should be even better.
Easy does it
However, driving on damp public roads on a frosty December day dictated a decidedly cautious approach to cornering for this test - especially as I’d earlier had a 2.5-litre GTO sideways while accelerating from the urban limit along a straight country lane…
In the event the 3R proved to be so surefooted and confidence inspiring that even when driving cautiously along damp roads was still easy to travel very quickly. Although hardly approaching its cornering limits, I can tell you that the 3R turns in keenly and shrugged off my 30mph tight right hander test with not even a hint of understeer. And once you’ve given those Bridgestone S-03s chance to warm up, then even on damp roads it’ll drive out of tight bends in low gears with fairly enthusiastic throttle openings without any unwanted wheelspin or power oversteer.
That Quaife LSD is obviously a factor in this, as is the tractability of the 3-litre engine, which pulls strongly from low revs and exhibits a power delivery that feels more akin to a normally aspirated engine than a traditional tuned turbo job. Use its power to the full and the resulting performance is awesome, with acceleration that puts the 3R firmly in the exclusive sub-ten second 0-100mph club and a claimed top speed of 170mph.
The stopping power provided by the all-round 330mm drilled and vented discs is rather impressive too, though with servo assistance and no ABS the 3R’s wheels did lock up during very heavy braking on the slippery roads. However, with some quick cadence braking the Noble was still able to stop both rapidly and in a straight line, while the nicely progressive brake pedal means that locked wheels aren’t normally a problem even on damp roads.
Overall the 3R proved to be very capable on both urban and rural roads, combining reasonable refinement with high levels of performance and driving enjoyment - but would it be possible to live with one on an everyday basis?
Well, restricted rearward visibility makes for difficult reverse parking manoeuvres, and with no external stowage space, anything you need to carry has to go in the cabin, which has two good size door pockets, a couple of elasticated map pockets and some space behind the fixed back seats. It also has ample space for two humans, with the M12 accommodating drivers up to 6’ 4” tall and offering the option of air conditioning to keep them cosy.
So while the 3R might initially look more road and track toy than daily driver, it’s really no more impractical than an Elise, so if you can stretch to the £52,500+ it costs but can’t afford a runabout as well, then yes, you probably could live with one on an everyday basis.
I for one would certainly be willing to give it a try…
Copyright © Graham Bell 2004